In a relatively short period of time, the promotion and provision of orthodontic treatment have changed significantly. Previously, the majority of specialist orthodontic practices were kept busy with a constant flow of NHS patients with relatively few adult patients seeking treatment. Orthodontics wasn’t well marketed to adult patients and the choice of treatments was limited based on the materials and technology available at the time. GDPs rarely provided orthodontic treatment instead focussing on a wide range of other dental services giving a potential orthodontic patient a more straightforward pathway to receiving treatment.

Advertising your practice usually involves a listing in the local ‘Yellow Pages’ with the index for ‘Orthodontists’ often having so few entries it just read ‘see dentists’. To increase your ‘page ranking’ you simply had to change your practice name to ‘AAA Orthodontics’ or take out a box advert promoting the treatments provided. Other marketing was limited to printed media and networking with local GDPs. There generally wasn’t the need to focus attention on attracting adult private patients and from a patient’s perspective, if they wished to explore orthodontic treatment, would simply speak to their dentist who would advise and refer them. This wasn’t always an easy process and I still clearly remember the difficulty involved in trying to get an appointment for a consultation in London from specialists who would often not see patients who had not been specifically referred to them.

With the internet still in its infancy and smartphones and apps not yet invented, the tools necessary to effectively promote orthodontics directly to patients were limited. Early adopters would create websites that were often a reflection of their printed promotional material or advertisements. With connection speeds low and the need to tie up your phone line to access the internet, orthodontic practices limited the number of photos and graphics on their sites instead focusing on text to describe their services. Patients would generally continue to seek advice from their dentist as, at this point and from their perspective, nothing had changed.

Although there was some innovative consumer-focused marketing happening in other areas, dentistry was slow to adopt new ways to engage with potential customers with wording often more focused on what the practice could provide rather than the needs and aspirations of the patient. Single page websites would often begin with something like ‘We are a family run practice and have been providing orthodontic services in [insert the name of your town] for over x years’. The page would then go on to describe more about the practice and some
of the services provided with information about what to do if the patient wanted to be referred to them.

The digital age

With usage of the internet growing rapidly, faster connection speeds and more capable software, opportunities were becoming available to better engage directly with patients and for the provision of orthodontics to start gaining more prominence. A number of forward-thinking practices grasped the opportunity to develop their digital marketing and for the first time, patients could seek out and explore the offerings
of different practices from their home. Orthodontic technology was evolving and with it the opportunity to start talking about the patient experience and differentiating the services available to adult patients.

The keynote presentation delivered by Steve Jobs on 9th January 2007 in which he introduced the iPhone started one of the largest changes in consumer-focused marketing, the pace of which is still accelerating. Search engine capabilities increased and websites evolved to become responsive to different screen sizes giving patients the opportunity to learn more about orthodontic treatment at a time and in a way that was convenient to them. Again, it was interesting to see some early adopters who moved away from the more traditional approach of advertising their services to exploring the potential of marketing private treatment to an increasing number of patients seeking braces.

Orthodontic treatment options continued to advance with aligners gaining in popularity amongst patients as an alternative to fixed braces. GDPs, supported by a network of solution and training providers, were starting to see the potential and increase their portfolio of treatments provided to include orthodontics and from a patient perspective the options and availability of orthodontic treatment were rapidly increasing. Having teeth straightened as an adult was gaining in popularity along with an increased awareness of other complementary treatments such as composite bonding and whitening to produce a smile to be proud of.

A plethora of options

From a patient perspective, what does the landscape for orthodontics look like now? I would describe it as very accessible but a little confusing. There is an abundance of information available about orthodontic treatments from websites and social media and no shortage of practices offering teeth straightening using a wide range of treatment solutions to suit everyone’s preferences.

It is becoming harder for patients to differentiate competing practices so in the absence of prior experience to influence their decision-making process, patients risk using price and perceived speed of treatment to narrow their choice. It is not uncommon to see something like ‘Would you like straight teeth in only x weeks for as little as..?’ appearing on websites and on social media further adding to the confusion faced by patients.

We all know these two factors are not good indicators of treatment outcomes but when patients are faced with a huge choice, they have to start somewhere. This provides both a challenge and an opportunity for practices. There is a high demand for orthodontic treatment and this is likely to only increase further. Whether you are wishing to grow your existing private list or realign your services towards private patients as a result of changes to NHS contracts, opportunities exist to more effectively market your practice and the services provided by changing the way you engage with potential patients both online and at the practice.

This article was written for Orthodontic Practice and appeared in their Jan / Feb 2019 issue.